Implicit Messages & Spiritual Injury in Faith Communities

By Laura Thien & Rev. Carrie Nettles

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More than half of your faith community is impacted by childhood sexual abuse. Have you ever wondered or considered how our language concerning concepts such as forgiveness, sin, or purity sounds to the survivors of sexual trauma? How can we improve our understanding and care for survivors of sexual trauma in this regard?

Few people in the church set out to harm others, especially those siblings in Christ who are already suffering and yet so many survivors of child abuse and sexual assault recount stories of the wounding messages and subsequent spiritual injury from clergy and their faith community. Some of these wounding messages are explicit-- the fully and clearly expressed or demonstrated words and actions that are helpful or unhelpful-- while some are implicit and unintended. It would take a great deal of time to fully unpack the dynamics of implicit messaging and its influence on spiritual injury; however, it is our hope to begin the conversation here.

Spiritual injury may occur as a result of both explicit and implicit messaging. An explicit message may look like a caregiver or pastor directly blaming a person for their abuse and even spiritualizing its impact. If a caregiver walks in on their child being abused and begins name-calling or blaming the victim, that clearly expressed message has a direct impact.

An implicit message may look like an adult survivor internalizing theological teachings on forgiveness and believing they will be eternally damned, even though nobody directly communicated this to them. It also may look like a congregant feeling as though they cannot express their level of discomfort with a clergy person’s decision about handling their abuse because of the power that clergy person has over congregational life and spiritual care.

In her book, Counseling Survivors of Sexual Trauma, Dr. Diane Langberg discusses her framework for understanding the interaction of trauma with a survivor’s personhood-- more specifically their power, voice, and relationships (Langberg, 2003). Relationship can also be viewed as connection to self, others, the world, and God. Power, voice, and connection are all distorted or destroyed when a person experiences trauma, though the extent of each may vary from person-to-person. Adjusting our lens to the power/voice/connection framework gives us an opportunity to evaluate how a survivor’s personhood may interact with implicit (indirect, implied, and often unintended) messaging and may experience spiritual injury.

Power

Sexual assault is not only a trespass upon one’s body, but also upon their free agency, the power to choose when and with whom they share intimate physical connection. Power is stripped from victims of sexual abuse in the assault event(s). We aid in the healing process by offering the power of choice back to individuals. 

We must develop an understanding of the real or perceived power a person in a leadership position holds and the impact of that power on the relational dynamic with survivors. This is especially important if a person in a congregational leadership role is perceived as being a spokesperson for God. If this is the case, a survivor may perceive an implicit message that a clergy person’s guidance is synonymous with God’s guidance or that a clergy person’s approval/disapproval is synonymous with God’s approval/disapproval. Dr. Langberg has articulated in several of her lectures that the responsibility for maintaining integrity in a relationship always lies with the person who has the most power. 

Voice

One of the most sacred aspects of a person’s trauma is the person’s telling of it. The courage to speak words of truth into audible existence, written existence, or otherwise often comes at a great cost to that person. Sometimes, a disclosure is made with the belief that great harm or threat may come to self and others by uncovering the great darkness. Often, those bringing this light to the fore are wondering if they will be believed and protected. Often, the journey of telling and healing is messy, unpredictable, and long. If rejected or impressed to pursue healing in a specific way, a survivor may come to perceive an implicit message that their story and voice only matters if he or she speaks the right religious language or follows a neat, prescribed pathway of grace. We must not only be willing to listen and honor the courage of all who bring their darkest pain to light, but to elevate the voices of these dear ones by giving their voices representation in our lament, repentance, and care. 

In the Old Testament, we read of Hagar, a survivor of trauma who experienced an encounter with the God in the wilderness. She thereafter names her newborn child Ishmael, which means, “God hears.” May those who claim the name of the God understand that, paraphrasing David Augsburger, “to be heard is to be loved.” 

Relationships/Connection

Foundational to a survivor’s personhood is the dignity and worth bestowed upon them and inherent in their existence. Their very creation as a human being was born out of relationship and connection to God. We are hard-wired as relational beings-- not just to connect with others, but ourselves, the world around us, and the Creator. In his seminal work, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van der Kolk writes, “Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being.” (Van der Kolk, 2014, p. 38)

When trauma enters a person’s story, it disrupts the survivor’s sense of connection to self, others, the world around them, and God. Self-worth, safety, trust, and intimacy become distorted, causing spiritual injury. Part of the work of healing is making meaning of and restoring these elements and exploring what connection and relationships look like now. For Christians, that could be some version of, “Where is God in all of this?” Explicitly, a faith community may tell survivors that they are not responsible for their abuse; however, for Christians raised in contexts with a high value on purity culture, survivors’ connection to self, others, and God can become ruptured if they receive an implicit message that they are impure/sinful as the result of their assault. Unaddressed, such beliefs can impair or deeply damage a person’s sense of belovedness or belonging and deepen disconnection rather than healing it.

A few, additional practical suggestions for being aware of implicit messaging:

Consider whether your role in your faith community or congregational life has real or perceived power and how that power may influence a survivor’s interaction with you. How does the survivor view your decision-making and guidance? Do they feel they have the choice to disagree with you or voice a concern without it impacting their congregational care and faith-community relationships?

Many churches host or run their own recovery or support groups. When working with survivors, connection with other survivors may be beneficial, but be mindful to offer options rather than direct someone’s course of recovery or healing. When survivors feel assigned a group or program based upon church leadership’s impressions, it can strip them of a sense of voice and choice, abuse the power differential between leadership and the survivor, and deter relationships that could have been helpful if developed organically. For example: “We have several kinds of support groups here, I wonder if you might find one of them helpful,” instead of  “Oh, well then you need ___ group. That will heal you.”

When communicating with survivors, consider being a part of restoring their power and voice by using invitational language, rather than directorial language. For example, “I wonder if you would you be open to sharing with me some ways that we have been both helpful and unhelpful to you during this time,” versus “Tell me why you are unhappy with the support we are giving you.”

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking.

Langberg, D. M. (2003). Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse. United State of America: Xulon Press.


Laura Thien, MSW, LISW-CP, is a GRACE Board Member and a licensed social worker in clinical practice at a rape crisis and NCA-accredited Children’s Advocacy Center. She has been working with survivors of child abuse, sexual assault, and other trauma for over ten years in a variety of capacities, including adoptions, foster care, and clinical practice.

Rev. Carrie Nettles, MDiv is a CPE trained chaplain and victim service specialist at a rape crisis and NCA-accredited Children’s Advocacy Center. She has been working with survivors of child abuse, sexual assault, and other trauma for over ten years in a variety of capacities, including the church, children’s advocacy centers, level one trauma centers, and children’s mental health hospitals.